The Patriots are 5-3. They own the AFC East. They are the defending AFC champions, but that title is up for grabs. The long road back to the Super Bowl will mentally and physically test their grip on the royal crown.
The argument could be made that the Texans have a deeper and more complete team than the Patriots. The same cannot be said for the Broncos, but it can almost be said. The gaps in depth and talent amongst these three AFC contenders is minimal.
In a potential playoff showdown between the Texans and Patriots, or between the Broncos and Patriots, the talent on each side would be extremely balanced.
But the Patriots have one special ace in their pocket: Their quarterback.
It's a simplistic reduction, sure, but it's also truthful.
As much as we scrutinize the matchups and obsess over the top-to-bottom details between these championship contenders, the truth is that any loss or victory here will ultimately be in the hands of Tom Brady.
And that's how it should be.
That's an important question, because the Giants are primed for another Super Bowl trip. Don't be lulled into thinking that their loss to the Steelers last Sunday was an indication of their decline. There is no decline. This is exactly how the Giants operate.
Here's how the pattern goes.
The Giants take a bumpy journey through the regular season. They have the look and feel of a team that will get bounced early from the playoffs.
They lose against good teams and terrible teams alike, which raises serious red flags and generates widespread doubt in their ability.
They get irritated by this widespread doubt, so they use it to their advantage. Instead of letting it drag them down (like the Jets), they use it to boost their emotional firepower. They get mad and build steam. They start playing better.
By the time the playoffs arrive, they're foaming at the mouth like an attack dog, ready for all-out war against anyone standing in their path.
Before you know it, they're world champions.
That's the pattern.
And here's the proof.
Nine games into the 2007 season, the Giants were rocky at 6-3, while the Patriots were strong and steady at 9-0. The Giants got hot when it mattered, marched through the playoffs, beat the Patriots and won the Super Bowl.
Nine games into the 2011 season, the Giants were up-and-down at 6-3 and the Packers were strong and steady at 9-0. The Giants caught fire late in the season, marched through the playoffs, eliminated the Packers, beat the Patriots and won the Super Bowl.
This isn't a coincidence, it's a trend.
And the Patriots continue to be a casualty of this trend.
Therefore, to fully understand where the Patriots stand heading into Week 10, one must also understand where the Giants stand at the same moment.
And the Giants are 6-3 right now. Good old 6-3, just like in 2007 and 2011.
Sure, Eli Manning is struggling a bit. He has nine interceptions through nine games. But that's nothing new. Last season, he threw a total of 16 picks. In 2007, he threw 20. This is familiar terrain for him.
Inconsistency is part of Manning's game.
But so is heroism.
In fact, heroism is Manning's redeeming quality.
But his defining quality is his ability to beat Tom Brady on the biggest stage in professional sports. This is what he'll forever be remembered for.
Had the Patriots and Giants split Super Bowl XLII and Super Bowl XLVI, this would all be nothing more than a simple rivalry. But after two Giants victories, this has become much more serious.
Eli Manning and Tom Coughlin are headed for the Hall of Fame, partially for what they achieved in 2007 and 2011, but also, for what they prevented Tom Brady and Bill Belichick from achieving in those same seasons.
For that reason, this thing goes way beyond the confines of a simple rivalry.
For the Patriots and Giants, this fight is on a whole other level.
There's another Boston team in a similar situation right now. The Boston Celtics have a bitter history with the Miami Heat, who, like the Giants, are the defending world champions.
Celtics' coach Doc Rivers recently touched on this subject, saying this:
"I never believed that anybody is ever defending a title, because that was last year. They don't own the trophy this year. That's what I tell our guys. Miami is defending nothing. They won the title last year. You don't give your trophy back. That's in boxing, where you get the belt back, that's defending the title. In the NBA, you win a new title.
We're trying to win a new title, and they're trying to win a new title. But they don't have this year's trophy, so they are not defending it. That's the way we look at it."
There's merit to Rivers' ideology. New title, new season, clean slate. That's smart and diplomatic.
But diplomacy doesn't change the fact that the Celtics and Heat are enemies on another collision course. Really, this entire basketball season is just a countdown to the Celtics vs. Heat series.
And no matter how new that playoff series is, or how new the title is, these old foes will bring old baggage to the table. There's just too many wounds between these teams for a truly clean slate to exist.
They can call it business, but it will be personal.
Same goes for the Patriots.
New England is a new team in a new season with new possibilities. They have a clean slate. But the Giants will be waiting for them in the Super Bowl. At that point, the slate will stop being clean.
And even if the Giants aren't there, the demons will be.
Tom Brady has three rings instead of five. Bill Belichick has five rings instead of seven. Wes Welker has no rings instead of one. Those missing rings are painful. Another Super Bowl confrontation with the Giants or any other NFC team will force that pain to the surface.
How the Patriots use that pain will make the difference between raising another banner or not raising another banner.
Heading into Week 10, the Patriots will look to manhandle the Bills and maintain a stronghold on their division. And they will.
The Patriots should have no trouble winning six of their remaining eight games. Matchups with the Texans and 49ers will be tough, so those games will probably be split with a win and a loss.
This puts the Patriots in full control of their destiny.
Tom Brady can beat Peyton Manning in the playoffs. He can beat Matt Schaub in the playoffs, too.
It's what happens next that counts.